Guest opinion: To protect our future, let’s make neck guards mandatory for youth hockey

With nearly two decades of ice hockey experience, including two years in the North American Hockey League post-high school, Brandon Avezov says he has "intimately encountered the thrilling speed, skill and dangers of" hockey. As a student-athlete at Columbia University and a forward for its New York Collegiate Ice Hockey Club, his passion for the game, he says, is coupled with a deep commitment to enhancing player safety. That is why he is calling for youth leagues to adopt neck guards as part of their required equipment.

By Brandon Avezov 

Editor’s note: This is a guest essay from Long Islander Brandon Avezov, who attends Columbia University. His sister, Jennifer, is currently a Hofstra University student.

This past October, the tragic death of professional ice hockey player Adam Johnson, resulting from a skate blade laceration, reverberated through the sports community, beckoning a need for change in protecting the lives of skaters. Johnson, with 13 NHL and 257 AHL games under his belt, serves as a poignant reminder of the inherent risks in ice hockey, emphasizing a critical vulnerability in player safety—the neck. 

A look into hockey’s history indicates that this is not a new problem. In 1975, goaltender Kim Crouch raced and slid out of his net to play a puck. As he did, a player’s skate caught him in the neck. Five decades later, Crouch recalls sitting in a pool of his blood and the extensive three-hour surgery that saved his life. “As you get older, you begin to realize how fortunate you were,” said Crouch, now 67. “I was a pretty lucky guy.”

After his injury, Crouch created the first-ever neck guard with the help of his dad and continues to champion the fight to make neck guards mandatory. Despite the timespan from 1975 to the present, isn’t it intriguing that even after the near-fatal incident involving Crouch, there hasn’t been any mandate requiring neck guards? 

As the captain of the New York Collegiate Ice Hockey Club, my teammates and I have adopted neck guards as a preventive measure. My advocacy for mandatory neck guards in youth hockey is rooted in preventing tragedies and learning from near misses. For instance, shortly after Johnson’s passing, a youth player in Eastern Ontario was saved by a neck guard after being cut by a skate during a hockey game. The commissioner of the youth league spoke out and stated, “Luckily, he was wearing a neck guard, or this could have been much worse. This can happen in any rink on any night. Protective equipment matters for everyone.” 

Brandon Avezov

Moreover, hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, known as the “Great One,” echoed this important standpoint, stating, “So here we are now, all these kids grow up, especially in Canada, wearing the neck guards. Why take it off? Keep the neck guards on… Eventually, we’re going to see kids coming into the league wearing neck guards to protect themselves.” His advocacy, expressed by many players, has fueled a significant movement toward making neck guards mandatory in various leagues. 

Looking broadly, Canadian major junior leagues and a pro league recently took a firm stance on player safety. The United Kingdom’s pro league, the Elite Ice Hockey League, and major junior leagues such as the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Hockey League have made neck guards mandatory for their players. The adoption of neck guards in these prominent leagues sends a powerful message to the hockey community at large. It illustrates that the safety of players is paramount and prioritized. 

Washington Capitals forward and Olympian T.J Oshie was one of the first players in the NHL to wear a neck guard following Johnson’s death. He reasoned, “I made my choice for my kids. I want to stick around for them. For youth, I’d hope it shows that it’s really not a distraction from my game. I thought I played pretty decent tonight. Honestly, it was actually really comfortable. So, youth players, if they’re able, I hope they can get some type of neck protection. I didn’t even notice it after one shift tonight.”

Oshie’s initiative for adopting a neck guard sets a progressive example and inspires a shift in safety standards, prompting a new era in which protective gear becomes just as integral to the game as skills themselves. 

As we look towards the future, it is essential that youth teams take inspiration from these professional and junior leagues. With USA Hockey hosting a meeting in January, one proposed rule states, “All players, including goalkeepers, in all age classifications are required to wear a neck laceration protector designed for that purpose, and that covers as much of the neck area as possible and are recommended to wear cut-resistant socks, sleeves or undergarments.”

In the meantime, let’s protect our players on Long Island and make neck guards mandatory despite USA Hockey’s ruling. Prime hockey season is now, and while such occurrences are rare, their severity is undeniable; one incident is too many. After all, isn’t the safety of our athletes a responsibility we should all champion?